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Doing mini-publics: the translocalisation of politics

Project C3 within Collaborative Research Center SFB 1265 at Technische Universität Berlin’s Department of Sociolog


Since around 1970, “deliberative mini-publics” have spread across the globe. Part of a larger movement to innovate democracy, this model is based on moderated processes of deliberation among a group of representatively sampled citizens, seeking to realize Habermas’ theory of communicative action. Our research project Doing mini-publics: the translocalisation of politics takes this model of organizing citizen participation as a case study for addressing larger questions: What is the relevance of ‘knowledge spaces’ for late modern politics? How do expert-led articulations of policy models actually shape political reality? How do certain models that describe what politics is and how it is to be done circulate? How are citizen-selves and imaginaries of politics (re)produced by these models and their enactment?

We argue that the network of sites in which different variants of the mini-publics model are developed and deployed constitutes a new space of democratic culture cutting across and interfering with various regionally established cultures of politics. This new space comprises sites where the model is applied in concrete deliberation processes as well as sites where the model is scientifically theorized and experimented with, where it is negotiated as a professional standard, or marketed as a tool for policy makers. For studying the emerging translocal knowledge spaces of politics we depart from studies of “experimental world-making” and “mediation” (in science and technology studies), and from studies of “policy mobilities”, “translations”, and “translocal assemblages” (in praxeologically inclined globalization studies). We follow the model of deliberative mini-publics as it moves and transforms through different contexts, and we analyse how practices of doing deliberative mini-publics are linked across sites materially and discursively, and how these translocal connections shape local practices and in turn also the theorizing of participation.




Our research project in practice

In order to understand how the model of mini-publics circulates, we combine ethnography and discourse analysis in an innovative methodological approach. It is situated within a broader pragmatist and practice-theoretical perspective on social life and on questions about how complexes of practice become constituted across time and place.

We plan to do ethnographic field studies in three sites where work is undertaken to develop and articulate the procedure of doing mini publics (e.g. research projects, professional capacity building, formulation of good practice standards at commissioning institutions like the EU) and in four sites where it is implemented (across different politico-cultural contexts e.g. Europe, USA, Africa, Asia). This multi-sited and mobile ethnography addresses the following questions: How does procedural knowledge for doing mini-publics travel? How are practices connected through the circulation of (a) experts and moderators with embodied skills and sensitivities, (b) metaphors, concepts and rules, and (c) material artefacts like communication technology or templates for seating arrangements or invitation letters?

The discourse-analytical dimension of our project focuses on the representation of important places and spatial arrangements within which the mini-publics model gets developed and applied, and which configure the ways in which it circulates. Second, it addresses how the implementation of mini-publics events is prefigured by discursive practices. To answer these questions, we analyse widely circulating texts in the field of mini-publics as well as documents and interviews gathered during field visits.


This combination of discourse analysis and ethnography serves to explore the relation between discursive and material construction of spaces through circulation, and contributes to the nascent methodological debate about discourse-ethnography.

In addition, we set out to build a database registering mini-publics projects from the 1970s until today. This allows us to geographically map how over time mini-publics practices have spread and how circulating people, documents and artefacts connect practices in different localities. This aims at tracing how a translocal community of democratic practice evolves, how its internal relations of power are shaped, as well as how it impacts local political cultures with which it interacts. In other words, we set out to study mini-publics as a democratic innovation "in the making", i.e. with regard to the practical work that goes into the articulation, establishment and spreading of a new technology of democracy – and with regard to the ontological assumptions that are inscribed in its design and that become enacted upon its use.

The collaborative research centre “Re-figuration of spaces”


The research project Doing mini-publics: the translocalisation of politics is part of the larger collaborative research centre (CRC) SFB 1265 “Re-figurations of spaces”. The interdisciplinary research centre brings together researchers from sociology, architecture, urban planning and geography to study the fundamental transformations that the organization of the social through space has undergone in the last few decades. With its interdisciplinary approach to analysing spatial structures and new spatial knowledge, the CRC offers an integrative perspective on the analysis of the current refigurations of the social order. The SFB 1265 comprises 15 research projects and is initially funded by the German Research Foundation DFG for a period of four years until 2022 (with a perspective of 12 years), and hosted by the TU Berlin in collaboration with the FU Berlin, HU Berlin, Münster University and IRS, the Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space. 

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