At this year’s Political Studies Association International Conference in Manchester, Andrea Felicetti of the University of Canberra presented a paper called Radicals without rebellion? A Case Study on four Transition experiments. In it he explored “whether and how social movements can promote radical positions whilst refraining from adopting an oppositional approach”. This was one of the first pieces of research I have come across that explored Transition’s approach to politics, so we contacted Andrea and asked him to write an article for us, presenting his key findings in as accessible a way as possible. We are delighted that he agreed to do so.
“After having met so many wonderful people engaged in Transition it is a real pleasure for me to have the opportunity to share here some of my work. My study focused on four Transitions, two in Italian towns in Emilia Romagna and Sicily and two from Australia in a suburb of Brisbane and in Tasmania. I did not have the goal to assess how good these groups are at doing Transition. Rather, I tried to understand them from a very specific perspective: a democratic point of view.
Being interested in deliberative democracy I see democracy not just in terms of, say, electoral competition or representation of interests but particularly in the quality of communication occurring within and among groups in societies. So, I tried to understand the internal qualities of these groups and their way of relating to the local politics.
There are many reasons for researching a movement like the Transition from a deliberative democratic perspective. To begin with Transition is an important phenomenon of itself. Also, understanding contemporary forms of citizens’ engagement is of sure interest to many contemporary scholars of democracy. For instance, in making communities more resilient and localised there is ground to make them more democratic too. The non-adversarial approach of Transition is especially fascinating to deliberative democrats who for long time have been showing some important limitations with traditional adversarial politics.
The Transition is also especially interesting because although it has a do-it-yourself approach it also stresses the importance of quality communication among participants with local actors. Finally, many of the themes that are central to the Transition (for instance, climate change) are also fundamental for many deliberative scholars around the world.
I spent almost two months in each local community, participated in group activities and meetings, and interviewed Transition participants and other community actors. There is a great variation in terms of groups’ characteristics from a deliberative democratic standpoint. Whilst in some groups discussions had a lesser role, some case studies developed discursive processes that showed desirable characteristics from a deliberative standpoint and had a fundamental role in coordinating the various activities.
The internal features of a group and the relationship that it establishes with the surrounding context both seem very important to determine its deliberative and democratic qualities. When there is a firm commitment to democratic norms and when it is perceived that communication at group level is important to affect the community, groups are capable of developing high quality interactions. My findings, along with similar ones on other contemporary movements, challenge the view that the public is incapable of quality democratic engagement.
The good news in terms of the impact you are having is that Transition initiatives can actually promote democratic forms of engagement at the local scale. On the other hand though, there is no ground to claim that this is always the case. Groups establish original relationships with their surrounding environment and forms of engagement that is neither particularly deliberative nor democratic may prevail. This seems more likely to happen where the focus on ‘getting things done’ clearly prevails over other concerns (whilst more active groups are not necessarily those with a more pragmatic approach).
With regard to this latter aspect for instance it is worth noticing that often deliberative and democratic characteristics are not required in collaborating with local institutions. Actually, managing the relationship with local institutions puts under particular stress a group’s capability to develop democratic engagement. In line with other studies my work suggests that an environment where institutions are particularly responsive to citizens’ activism is not necessarily beneficial to the development of democratic interactions within groups and with the broader community.
My findings of course cannot speak for the Transition initiatives all over the world or the Network. However, even just in my study it seems that Transition means quite different things to different people. In the face of specific challenges participants have to make decisions on how to interpret Transition’s ideas. These choices not just affected the democratic qualities of groups but also their overall activity. Interestingly, those groups that tend to adhere closely the Transition guidelines have a good platform to build good quality and democratic interactions.
Although I have no recipe to develop deliberative democratic engagement in groups I think a few essential ingredients may include the following:
- Don’t take the democratic nature of a group for granted. It is usually possible to interact democratically in groups but it does require effort.
- Good quality discussions won’t happen naturally and having some form of moderation may have incredibly good effects.
- Create moments for the group to decide how much it cares about good quality communication and how it intends to achieve it. Good quality communication is not necessarily about talking a lot but as much as making sure that there is always an open channel for effective discussion.
- Being open won’t make you inclusive. Openness to different people and views won’t necessarily attract those people and views… an effort is needed in order to reach out to locals and take good care of them when they do show up. NB: having good quality communication implies that you are better able to ‘exploit’ the different contributions that people may give.
- Help from institutions may greatly enhance your Transition but very different views and goals exist quite naturally among various actors. If you decide to partner with institutions (or any organisation really) make sure participants are happy with it (and with the ways collaboration is carried out along the way).
Quite normally some people tend take responsibility for different tasks. Some may talk to politicians, some may run activities, and some may contact other organisations… Make sure that someone takes care of nourishing engagement among actual people within the group and in the rest of the community.