Democratic experiments today - Call for contributions

Democratic experiments today :
convergences, fragmentation, political impact

January 26, 27 and 28 2017
International conference at
Maison des Sciences de l’Homme Paris Nord (at Saint-Denis)


Call for contributions

>>>>Download the call for contributions


Proposals must be submitted by November 30th 2016 to :


Organized by the scientific interest group, Democracy and Participation (created in 2009 by the CNRS), this conference aims to mark a turning point, a new foundation in a context of democratic urgency. Far beyond the « democratization of democracy » program which united a research community on participation, the current ecological, technological, and energy transitions beg discussion of a now backwards democratic transition, where a shift towards authoritarian regimes is not to be excluded. When democracy is only embodied as a political regime or even as an electoral system, distrust undermines political institutions and triggers a demand to return to authority. Those who instead believe that democracy means ‘making society’ and experimenting new political and economic forms, seize upon new technologies to renew the experience of citizenship and invent common practices. The political crisis is deep; democratic innovation is alive. An apparent paradox that is unravelled when we consider the triple nature of democracy: at once a regime of political representation, a system of public institutions ensuring the cohesion of society, and a set of forms of collective life, of ways of being in the world and living together founded on an unconditional respect for equality. 

One verdict is more and more commonly shared: democracy needs to be rebuilt. Capitalizing on the multiple forms of participation in today’s many democratic experiments so as to give consistency to these transitions, necessarily means paying as much attention to the transformation of public action as to the production, through citizen action, of social, economic, and political alternatives for resolving common problems. From communal gardens to participatory science, from civic technology to the social and solidarity economy, from fab labs to new social movements, from the return of sortition to ‘do it yourself democracy’, from participatory projects to open government, new forms of representation, of citizenship, new ways of managing the commons, are invented or reinvented. Are these practices doomed to remain incomplete, fragmented, always needing to be redone? Can we recognize any convergences and continuities? How to engage with a democracy open to doing? The objective of this conference is to chart a map of concepts and initiatives, to take stock of the variety of democratic experiments, to shed light on current contradictory dynamics, and to reflect on the meaning of these experiments: where is participation at today?

The conference has, first of all, the objective of knowledge production: to paint an overall picture of the multiplicity of contemporary citizen experiments. The conference is equally an analytical project aimed at identifying their specificities: their common characteristics, fragmentation dynamics like the convergence abilities of proliferous initiatives. Finally, the conference intends to investigate their political implications, their potential to transform action and public decision-making and, more deeply, to identify, within the multitude of recent or current experiences, paths to a renewal of democracy and the social, economic and political practices that characterize the latter.


The conference does not foresee separate sessions reserved for ‘researchers’ or ‘practitioners’. On the contrary, the idea is to test together the meaning of initiatives and experiments, and the reflective perspectives fruitful for gaining a deeper understanding of the latter. Responses to the call for papers can come, separately or together, from participation academics and actors, and take the form of article abstracts, critical reviews of experiences, reflexive testimonies, dialogues/conversations, videos, exhibition stands, posters, etc.


Gis’s activities have highlighted the double contradiction that characterizes participative phenomena: on the one hand the opposition between institutionalisation (and professionalization) of public participation in decisional processes and informal practices of participation, bearers of a critique of policy and decision; on the other, the contradiction between participation in social movements as a vector of empowerment, emancipation, and the use of participation as a tool for governing public action and social behaviours. The recent call for empowerment, adversarial democracy, and the questioning of institutional forms able to recognize the latter require an enlarged view of participatory and deliberative phenomena. More specifically, beyond the analysis of deliberative settings viewed as a response to the crisis of representative democracy, we must heed the multiplicity of demands of the part of social movements and multifaceted collectives (citizen lobbying funds, right of citizens’ initiative, sortition, solidarity expertise, etc.) and the variety of forms of social and political participation. We must also question the ‘novelty’ of these phenomena: what do early movements develop into or transform into (the expansion of citizenship out of feminist movements is a notable example), and do they reactivate inquiries or experiments in their practices that have already been tried or tested?

There are also, however, issues that are entirely new, challenging understandings of participation and resulting in new critical analyses. Broad issues related to the different ecological, technological and energy transitions reorient debate towards policy, reshaping citizenship and its practices, re-examining equality and social justice, putting the emphasis on democracy as a way of life, and fostering a demand for ‘real democracy now!’ that goes beyond the aim to democratise – or even radicalise – democracy and its institutions. There is not an area or facet of political, social, and economic life that escapes the struggle and conflict over what ‘making society’ is and how ‘participation’ gives it meaning. This call for contributions proposes to explore the challenges of citizen action, examining the issues at stake in a democratic transition in terms of the following questions.

Doing (together)

The issue of the commons, at the heart of the current transitions, shifts attention towards the construction of new partners in bottom-up processes of social and ecological innovation, largely using technology. The emergence of fab labs and the ‘do-it-yourself’ movement, like numerous initiatives (e.g. communal gardens, community-supported agriculture,…) renew relationships with creation, production, and consumption, and signal the rise of a ‘democracy of doing’, of new forms of engagement that are not immediately thought of as politics. Furthermore – as testified to by debate over an economy of ownership, over austerity, over de-growth – these initiatives highlight the question of the ethics of need, the conditions and indicators of a good life, and ways to collectively reflect on the latter from the local to the global. More generally, the question of the commons requires paying attention not only to all activities involving ‘pooling’, but to the cooperative work necessary for organizing the sharing and mutualisation of resources and data, and to news ways of ‘living together’. The question of participation is thus connected to new notions of doing. However, at odds with new forms of solidarity implemented by the social and solidarity economy, the liberal credo requiring ‘being the entrepreneur of oneself’ spreads, overestimating the entrepreneur, initiative, and individual adventure, and pushing for the disappearance of business as an institution.

Responses to the call for contributions will examine the tensions surrounding ‘doing’ in society and will endeavour to respond more specifically to the following questions. Debate, produce, build, consume, offer services, construct public spaces, common grounds, learn, exchange, share…: what do citizens do together, and at this point outside of conventional social and institutional frameworks? Through their aims, actions, and services done together, what do these experiments teach us about contemporary social economic and political action; what do they teach us about their conditions of realisation and the meanings they carry? How to identify ‘perverse confluences’, when similar practices unfold in the name of very different political projects: is the targeted horizon that of collective emancipation or rather strictly individual? How is the question of ‘responsibility’ interpreted in terms of its connection to democratic issues?


After more than thirty years of innovation and institutionalisation, participation has come under fire as much from its critics, who denounce its excesses, as by its supporters, who deplore its limits. On the one hand, with the economic crisis and critique of excessive normative requirements, the ‘right to participation’ constitutionalised with the Charter for the Environment, has been seen as an obstacle to growth and development. On the other hand, the dashed hopes of enacted plans has fed concern over a manipulation of participation in the service of those in power and at the expense of meaningful progress in the concerned sectors of public action.

These critiques converge - notably thanks to the increasingly common use of the Anthropocene as a concept in the humanities and social sciences - towards an understanding of participation in its established forms as contributing to a renewal of the ‘governmentality’ typical of neo-liberalism. They express the limits of experiments and their blind spots, and bring the issues back to a political terrain of conflictuality that collaboration strives to move beyond through dialogue and the search for negotiated solutions. In the environment field, the resurgence of land conflicts is marked by the emergence of radical forms of critique opposing the occupation of sites of participation, and questioning the sharing of a common world in which debate would make sense; that is, refusing such debate. For large businesses, participation is a matter of reputation and strategy in the progressive reconfiguration of relationships between stakeholders. The problematic interaction between strategy and ethics of dialogue merits further examination.

But we also see the emergence of a newspeak that sanitizes the critical dimension of participation and the rough edges of democracy: we speak of ‘constructive agendas’ instead of conflicts, of ‘inclusive society’ instead of inequalities, of nudges, and we promote a behavioural paternalism through ‘small gestures’ instead of discussion over collective choices, etc. Subversion of the words of democracy culminates with the pre-emption of the category of ‘people’, originally bearer of democratic conflict, by an ensemble of populist, anti-democratic, and xenophobic discourse, and reclamation of the theme of participation by the extreme right. In depriving citizens of the words necessary to reflect on the relationships between action and power, such reversals accompany the progression of our societies towards that which some have called ‘post-democracy’, others ‘de-democratisation’.

Responses to the call for contributions will shed light on the contradictions between participation and powers, with particular regard to the following questions: How do forms of self-organization of the social deal with questions of power(s) (within and in their interactions with others)? What obstacles do capacities of autonomous action encounter? How do power structures change? Are there counter-powers that are heralds of new forms of political representation? How to identify and analyse forms of subversion of words and practices in the service of political projects that not only vary, but are radically different from one another?


Democratic experiments call into question modes of knowledge production. Digital technology, and the rise of participative research or participative science – terms that have become widely diffused in just a short period of time – have brought upheaval in terms of production possibilities, data collection for research, forms of production, and the circulation of knowledge. The participation of ordinary citizens in science remains, however, controversial, much more so than that of political participation in a broad sense. This is because it questions a boundary, or even a hierarchy, between “ordinary citizens” and experts, or the monopoly over knowledge production by scientific professionals. The merging of knowledge is equally controversial because it questions unequal social relations at play in the recognition of different types of knowledge. The participation of ordinary citizens in science is however - as much so as political participation - a question of democracy. It touches the open and public nature of science as common (good). Because, at the same time that citizen initiatives abound, aggressive pressure from the best of digital technology, of health, of scientific publishing, etc., shape lifestyles, ways of working and, notably with the private appropriation of harvested data, redefine ways of producing knowledge and it ultimate purposes.

Reponses to the call to contributions will examine the place of participation within this transformation of knowledge, with particular regard to the following questions: What are the implications of a renewal of forms of knowledge production (e.g. citizen science) and of the diffusion of knowledge (e.g. MOOCs)? What transformations are at work in the relationship between authority over scientific knowledge and the opening of democratic debate, particularly when public policies (environment, health, education) mean to anchor themselves within a renewed citizenship (ecological democracy, health democracy, etc.)? What are the relationships between different kinds of knowledge, understandings, expertise, and norms within these policies? How to rethink research practices so as to strengthen their democratic nature, as much in their production as in their diffusion? What relationships develop between researchers and actors when the merging of knowledge is taken seriously? Does recognition of the existence of different knowledge(s) produce an understanding of society enough to weigh in on its transformation? What do we know about the learning effects of citizen experiments, of their capitalisation, of their transmission?

(Re)Distribute (Places, Social Roles, Resources, Capacities…)

The limitations of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress, debates over alternative indicators of well-being, of happiness, and more broadly, over negative growth, are firstly democratic, even before they are economic. Such debates bring to the fore the question of collective decision-making necessary for reorienting the economy. This is particularly true with regard to the new digital economy, which has developed entirely new ways of working, of knowing, and of doing. The digital empowers large, dispersed communities and supports powerful new forms of participation, of mobilisation, and of collective action. However, more than one aspect of collective intelligence technology and the “sharing economy” are at odds. On-going discussion over the ‘uberisation’ of society - over the ‘platform economy’ - are structured around an opposition between the collaborative and the cooperative (collaborative forms of consumption vs. cooperative forms of production), questioning the values underlying these new economic forms. The collaborative dimension of the new economy might remain as a form of intermediation between consumers and service providers, but often sees itself rapidly transformed by the financial concentration of providers in a predatory economy. Furthermore, debate over the relationship between labour and employment, resources and revenues (with the proposals of universal / unconditional / contributory… revenue), over the linkages between (salary) social contribution and contribution through taxes, and over activities useful to society, all question participation in its three dimensions: take part, contribute a part, and benefit from a part.

Responses to the call for contributions will question the dynamics of social fragmentation as well as the potential for re-institutionalisation of activity with new forms of cooperation at work in democratic experiments. Contributions will focus particularly on some of the following questions: Do citizen experiments invent new forms of organisation, of self-organisation? To what extent do they free themselves of traditional organizational charts, redistribution mechanisms, or social protection systems? Do they invent other forms of redistribution? Are they better able to recognize individual and collective capacities? What are their effects in terms of social justice?

 (Self) Emancipate   

Emancipation has returned as a central focus of citizen concern and is reinvested as the major referent of contemporary democratic experiments that value autonomy, empowerment and collective intelligence. Civic initiatives experiment modes of transparency, sympathetic understanding, horizontality, favouring radical inclusion, equality, cooperation and the legitimacy of doing. Such initiatives put new demands on the agenda of public deliberations and decision-making agencies: the common good, social and environmental utility, responsibility…leading them to necessarily integrate and recognize ordinary citizen competences and include them in the elaboration of criteria relevant to well-being. 

Democratic experiments thus feed new processes of political subjectivation, new practices that politically rearticulate individuals and collectives. Ways of linking initiatives from very distant horizons bring with them a redefinition of politics that is more horizontal and non-hierarchical. Today they form a cornerstone of available experiences, instrumental to alternative ways of making democracy work. It is therefore important to reflect on what ‘makes society’ in these efforts, on the bridges to build between them, and on the ways they concretely produce emancipation. In fact, certain collaborative forms, whether between the inhabitants of a working class neighbourhood or among participants of a self-managed worksite, do not necessarily have nor aim to have a political output, strictly speaking. How then to take them into account in current debates on democracy and participation, without labelling them as ‘politics despite them’? To what extent do these forms and practices oblige a rethinking of the question of that which ‘is’ or ‘does’ politics?

Moreover, activists and professionals search, via participation, a means to reconnect with the principles of popular education with the aim of emancipating the poor, the discriminated, etc. However, participative processes can remain reliant on institutional arbitrariness, on ‘injunction on autonomy’, and instead augment inequalities. Notions of citizenship according to which it is up to individuals to adapt to legitimate civic language and practices  - and not up to institutions to recognize a pluralism of citizen engagements and be open to critique – hinder processes of emancipation.           

Responses to the call to contributions will question the emancipatory potential of democratic experiments and the inequalities that they themselves reproduce. They will particularly take into account the following questions: What is the social basis of citizen experiments and how is the aim of emancipation shared by different categories of actors, allowing to go beyond the position of ‘beneficiary’? What forms of reflexivity, including ‘ordinary’ people involved in the action, are implemented? With what effect on individuals and on social actors? How do local initiatives produce democratic rules, institutional innovation generalizable on a wider scale? What types of political subjects does participation shape: critical citizens or, on the contrary, docile and apolitical subjects? What about non-progressive counter-movements that similarly aim to liberate social frameworks and traditional democracies? Is politics transformed, or not, within or by such practices?

Tomorrow Democracy: What Directions for Gis Democracy and Participation?

It is with an understanding of these new issues and debates – that demand testimonies and regulatory elaboration, a sharing of experiences and historical approaches, and research from multi- and interdisciplinary perspectives… - that responses to this call for contributions will react. The first conference by Gis Democracy and Participation, in 2011, questioned the spread of participative democracy: ‘much ado about nothing?’ Do we once more face the same question with regard to today’s proliferation of democratic experiments? The image of an ‘archipelago of participation’ is often used to paint a broad picture of the whole of citizen initiatives undertaken by communities that are weakly (or not) organized and without a focal point. The aim of this conference is to assess where participation is currently at today, and attempt to envisage what the myriad of current democratic experiments hold for the future.  

Experimentation is also a very new form of governance, pushing us to reflect more deeply on the shift from experimentation to normalisation. What do commercial platforms (e.g. Uber), citizen initiatives of collective participation in defining public policies, fab labs, or participative housing projects have in common? How to characterize the trajectories of these citizen experiments: why do some last, institutionalise, why do some embed within a capitalist model while others root within the social and solidarity economy? What political spectrums of social transformation do these different trajectories open? What forms of political production do they (re)invent?

The above outlined issues and debates have notably shifted contemporary understandings of participation. The original position of Gis Democracy and Participation is, nevertheless, confirmed: we must consider participation as a preferred entryway, a necessary point of passage for the analysis of societal transformation, rather than a predefined object by a normative approach to democracy. The final session of the conference is not, however, meant to propose an ideal model of democracy, but will instead gather testimonials and elements of analysis discussed in the previous sessions of the conference so as to explore the policy implications of the democratic experiments under review, and further reflect on the ways that participation researchers and actors can work together to renew democracy.   

This session will consist of brainstorming for the drafting of a Manifesto for studies on participation in democracy, aimed at gathering core ideas for its subsequent writing after the conference, with the help of volunteers willing to contribute. Its objective will be to draw the contours and working methods of a research field on democracy and participation that goes beyond a strictly academic setting. This call for radical reform will involve and expose researchers and actors to new themes and areas of research, on which the conference has shown that there is an interest of working together.


This call for contributions proposes to a look transversally at citizen experiments, so as to gain a deeper understanding of the realties they question: action, power, knowledge, redistribution, emancipation, and the future of democracy. In soliciting the analysis of the proliferation of citizen experiments through a number of transversal concepts, we expect responses that are not limited to a review of experiences or keep their observations within conventional frameworks, but rather those that disentangle how the political, the common, the collaborative unfold, under what conditions and with what effect; contributions that trace the ‘making society’ at work in these experiments… This approach will allow participants to make as much use of the proposed concept(s) from the experience acquired in their initiatives as from the reflections and knowledge gained in the process of experimentation.

Responses to this call for contributions can come separately or jointly from participation researchers and actors. They can take an academic format, necessary to respond to the urgent need for conceptualisation and reflexivity on action, or different formats allowing actors to give a full account of their initiatives, to share them, and open them up for discussion. Responses can take the form of abstracts, critical reviews of experiences, reflexive testimonies, dialogues/conversations, etc. They can also propose conventional workshops, cooperative researcher-actor workshops, or forward-looking workshops (e.g. mobilizing design methods). In addition, responses can also take the form of a stand, a poster, or a practice. The variety of physical spaces available for the conference means that a range of events can take place: workshops, forums, video projections, and exhibition stands…

Proposals should be about 2 pages in length and specify the questions they delve into as well as the chosen presentation format. The conference will be organised according to the general summary table below. Depending on the accepted proposals, parallel events may be organized, with care not to overly disperse reflection.


Conference Organization


Thursday, January 26

Friday, January 27

Saturday, January 28


9h30-10h: Introduction


10h-11h30: Session and Round Table 1

11h30-13h: Workshop 1


9h30-11h: Session and             Round Table 3

11h-13h: Workshop 3

 (Self) Emancipate

9h30-11h: Session and           Round Table 5

11h-13h: Workshop 5



14h30-16h: Session and            Round Table 2

16-17h: Forum Event

17-18h30: Workshop 2


14h30-16h: Session and             Round Table 4

16-17h: Forum Event

17-18h30: Workshop 4

Tomorrow, Democracy: A Manifesto for Gis

14h30-16h: Round Table and Conference Summary

16–17h30: General discussion for the collective elaboration of a manifesto defining the future directions of Gis Democracy and Participation


Proposals must be submitted by the 23rd of November 2016 to:

Conference Organising Committee:

  • Rémi Barbier (Engees, Member of the Gis Democracy and Participation Scientific Council);
  • Loïc Blondiaux (CRPS-CESSPUniversity Paris I, President of the Gis D&P SC);
  • Marion Carrel (CEMS-EHESS and CeRIES-University Lille III, Member of the SC);
  • Agnès Deboulet (CRH-Lavue, University Paris 8, Member of the SC);
  • Patrice Duran (ISP, Ens Cachan, President of Gis D&P);
  • Jean-Michel Fourniau (Dest-Ifsttar and GSPR-EHESS, Director of Gis D&P);
  • Martine Legris (Ceraps, University Lille 2);
  • Clément Mabi (Costech, University of Technology of Compiègne);
  • Catherine Neveu (IIAC-TRAM, EHESS, Member of the SC);
  • Héloïse Nez (CoST-Citeres, University of Tours);
  • Emmanuel Picavet (Phico-ISJPS, University Paris I, Member of the SC);
  • Sandrine Rui (Émile Durkheim Centre, University of Bordeaux, Member of the SC);
  • Denis Salles (Unité ETBX, Irstéa, Member of the SC);
  • Julien Talpin (Ceraps, Co-Director of the journal Participations);
  • Stéphanie Wojcik (Ceditec, University Paris Est Créteil, Member of the SC);
  • Joëlle Zask (Institut d’histoire de la philosophie,University Aix-Marseille, Member of the SC).

The conference will take place at Maison des sciences de l’homme Paris Nord

20, avenue George Sand 93210 La Plaine Saint-Denis
Metro: Front Populaire (end of line 12)
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