Voluntary civic society organizations as spaces for democratic learning and civic negotiation processes: the example of the city of Bautzen
In recent years, a trend towards increasing polarization of societies along real or imagined poles regarding political orientations has been observed. This phenomenon seems to threaten social cohesion and to complicate or even prevent democratic processes. This polarization has its hotspots in the “peripheries” (Förtner et al. 2018), in regions that experienced deindustrialisation, job losses and marginalization. Germany is just one example here, this holds true also for many Western European and the U.S. society. With our research, we go to one such peripheral region in Eastern Germany. Here, polarization of the local society has sharpened with the arrival of new international in-migration in the past years. Lately, also the protests against measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic have added further to local tensions and conflicts. The tensions related to polarization are significant and also affect everyday practices of citizens. It affects family relations, where family members find themselves on different sides of opposing political orientations, people report on personal disadvantage at work, on how they avoid (supposedly) controversial topics, publicly and privately. The political debate in the semi-public sphere has nearly come to a standstill.
With the applied research project “Conflicts in Volunteering as Potential for Democratic Learning Processes", the University of Applied Sciences Erfurt focuses on the experiences of volunteering civil society actors, such as NGO`s, associations, and loose networks with such conflicts. A qualitative analysis of about 60 interviews gave insight into the extent of local polarisation as well as the costs for the local society. Given the applied character of the project, we further seek for modes of supporting the local society in addressing conflicts and rebuilding cohesion. In cooperation with the Competence Centre for Local Conflict Counselling of the VFB Salzwedel, further work of the project focusses on micro-publics as sites of spontaneous deliberation and integration (Amin 2002, Valentine 2009).
With the proposed paper, we analyse how such micro-publics, be that neighbourhood initiatives, grass roots movements, football clubs or informal roundtables, negotiate opposing political orientations. In addition to their core business, these micro-publics usually deal with social polarization, maintain the conversation and keep the group together. From our analysis we will show how this negotiation works, what conditions foster the cohesion of groups across social and political differences. Aspects will include legitimacy as space for integration, formal and informal rules, hierarchies, binding forces versus differences, and the role of different spaces for negotiations.