Methodological Issues in Studying Alternative Forms of Engagement

Open Panel

As traditional forms of electoral and institutional participation are somehow eroding in the world, people are increasingly engaging in alternative forms of political action, defined by their weakly or non-coordinated, often ad hoc nature, privileging direct action and often focussing on issues located outside of the realm of govermental institutions and formal organizations. Targeted citizen actions in urban spaces, dumpster diving or the responsible consumption movement are all examples of such citizen initiatives. While students of politics are increasingly trying to grasp the phenomena and get a sense of its meaning(s), the question of methods remains unanswered. Ethnography, immersion in the field and participant observations have been among the prolific methodological approaches promoted and used by scholars to understand the socially constructed meanings of political action. However, given that these emerging forms of engagement are often performed individually and can therefore be associated to a lonely activity and with very few social interactions, the politization process and mechanisms are sometimes hard to uncover, calling for new ways of approaching the field.

This panel tackles the conceptual and methodological challenges and issues raised by the study of such alternative forms of engagement, which are often hardly visible, ‘silent’ by essence, and often outside of the realm of formal institutions. How to conceptually and methodologically ‘capture’ the political nature/meaning of such emerging and often poorly understood individually performed actions in the public space that are however politically elusive? The panel is therefore an invitation to reflect on such conceptual and methodological challenges from a reflexive and critical perspective, based on the comparison of alternative forms of engagement emerging in the public space in a diversity of empirical and regional contexts.