ESRC Seminar Series: Exploring Civil Society Strategies for Democratic Renewal

This ambitious six seminar series invites academics, activists and politicians to reflect on just how civil contentious strategies of the twenty-first century – from mass assemblages and public space occupations, to art interventions and digital campaigns – can contribute to improving, strengthening or renewing democratic vitality.


  1. Contentious Politics and New Democratic Spaces (University of Sheffield)
  2. Art, Expression and Democracy (Bank Street Arts, Sheffield)
  3. Confrontation, Protest and Democratic Progress (Bilkent University, Ankara)
  4. Contentious Politics and Democracy in the Digital Arena (City University London)
  5. Promoting Democracy in the Global Economy: the Roles of Civil Society (Cass Business School)
  6. Rethinking Democratic Renewal for the 21st Century (University of York)

Background and overview to the series:

In the late 20th and early 21st century, the changes brought about by economic and technological globalization and the decentralization of governance at the national and international levels have expanded the opportunities available for expressing the voice of the demos.

On the one hand this has roused much optimism for addressing existing democratic deficits within and across porous spaces of political participation. Civil society actors that are able to articulate and amplify their voices as never before, should be much better placed to help build a system in which all can realize their rights and freedoms.

On the other hand, challenges abound. Several scholars have pointed out that whilst technological advances have been enabling in some parts of the globe; in others, they have resulted in the shrinking of existing democratic spaces by contributing to the surveillance machinery of the state.

The problem of political inequality also prevails, with many people unable to access the new digital frontiers due to socio-economic and literacy constraints. Moreover, the limited achievements of the Arab uprisings in 2011, the relative subsidence of the Occupy Movement and the institutional intractability encountered by social movement parties such as Syriza at the European level suggest that something has gone awry.

Exercising political ‘voice’ is arguably not enough to defend and strengthen democracy today, especially in the context of challenges such as financial crisis, the constraints of neoliberal economic globalization and corporate power, the rise of authoritarian regimes, and the growing popularity of xenophobic discourses.

To date, a wide variety of approaches have been developed to address the more strategic dimensions of civil society activities. These include literature on non-violent action, political process theory with its discussion of framing and, a variety of more anthropological accounts of ‘strategies from below’. From 2011 onwards, the new wave of mass protest embodied in the ‘Arab Spring’ has prompted social movement scholars to shift their focus increasingly towards the use of social media, horizontal mobilization structures, and transnational dynamics that characterize these new movements.

However, these literatures have rarely engaged with one another productively; and even less commonly have they addressed questions relating particular civil strategies to substantive democratic outcomes. Our seminar series asks what these bodies of literature have to say to one another and whether they provide adequate tools for understanding and addressing the challenges of democratic renewal in the twenty first century. Moreover, the series aims to provide a platform and space for activists, political practitioners and academics to interact, share ideas and learn from one another.

Research Team:

Principal Investigator: Professor Matthew Flinders

Co Investigators:


If you are interested in attending one of the seminars in our series, please send an email to:

Supporting Organisations:

The Economic and Social Research Council


The University of York


City University London


 Bilkent University


The Bare Project

The Real Bare Project

Democracy Matters

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ShoutOut UK

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Exercising political ‘voice’ is arguably not enough to defend and strengthen democracy today