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How Can Knowledge Production Contribute to (Re-)Democratization

By Hannah Vos

The CEU Democracy Institute’s Inaugural Conference, “Probing Democracy,” aimed at examining under what conditions can the institutions, governance structures and social uses of scientific knowledge production foster a re-democratization of political systems and societies, opened with remarks from DI Co-Director Laszlo Bruszt and the President and Rector of CEU, Shalini Randeria. Thus commenced the first roundtable discussion, entitled “How can knowledge production contribute to (re-)democratization?”

The multi-disciplinary panel, moderated by Laszlo Bruszt, included Jennifer McCoy, Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University; Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law & Policy at HEC Paris; Julia Sonnevend, Associate Professor of Sociology and Communication at the New School for Social Research NYC; Anna Clark, Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the Australian Centre for Public History; and Sonya Ziaja, Assistant Professor of Environmental Law and Senior Research Scholar at the Center for International and Comparative Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

According to the panelists, knowledge production and democratic politics are both based on two principles:

“there is no absolute authority and there is no absolute knowledge.”

When a leader claims to have absolute knowledge or authority, and the institutionalization of debate is called into question, democracy cannot survive.


Sources of the dangers to scientific knowledge production

Jennifer McCoy explained that one of the dangers to scientific knowledge production is “pernicious polarization,” a manifestation of extreme and hostile societal divides. It is often driven by political leaders who intentionally create an “us vs them” dynamic for their own political aims. Although this dynamic may not always be created maliciously, by naming the “out group” as a threat to the “in group,” two things happen: the political leader tries to have a monopoly on knowledge and information so that their power is concentrated, which leads to divisions between those who trust the authority and those who do not. This results in a distrust in scientific authority, each other, and the political leaders.

Widespread distrust gives political leaders increased control, as they can then argue that anything that conflicts with their version of reality is inaccurate.

At this point both the in- and out-groups typically begin seeking out information which confirms their biases and rejects the rest as fake news.


According to Julia Sonnevend, throughout history new forms of media have brought about a hope for increased democratization. For example, the invention of radios supported the idea of increased communication and providing information to anyone with access, but the rise of fascism provided a “reality check” to the capability that radio had. Now, in the era of social media, she stressed that

the core of change happens in the long, drawn-out meetings, not by relying on unsustainable outrage from the internet.

Although social media supports public engagement, energy fades over time as it is difficult to sustain it, so it is important which forms of media a movement uses.

Regarding public engagement in his area of expertise (Europe and law), Alberto Alemanno opined that the question of why some scholars engage with the public more than they did previously, and what drove them to this point, is an under-theorized question. Particularly because

recent topics such as “fake news” and Brexit have led academics to seek to explain their research to promote public understanding in the form of policy recommendations and interviews.

There are three main obstacles to increasing public engagement:

  1. The academic field as a system has a culture which does not support this type of engagement, and scholars who engage with the public on this level are cast as “activists,” which remains a taboo for researchers.
  2. There is the perception that academics lose objectivity when they become too close to the object of study, which harms their methodology and tarnishes results. Alberto argues that there is no empirical evidence to support this claim, and that it is rather vital to become more intimately familiar with the object of study to better understand it, and then to take a step back once it’s time to reflect on the researcher’s experience.
  3. Among scholars, there is a lack of incentive to disseminate their research to the public, and few institutions reward scholars who engage with the public.

Sonja Ziaja explained that the concept of knowledge production and distrust from the public has long been a concern for environmental and sustainability science. “Co-produced” or “actionable” science, which includes deliberate participation from the communities to increase science’s legitimacy, grew from the concern that

scientific knowledge was losing usability because members of the public did not trust the results produced by scientists.

There are bridge institutions who work to bring together scientists and the public, and specific grants which seek to increase participation in science, but the drawbacks are that this takes a lot of time, and there are concerns that this limits the ability to scale up projects.


The role of civic education in defending the producers of knowledge

From the perspective of history education, particularly in Australia, Anna Clark believes that

fostering critical debate in the classroom is important to promote civic education and citizenship.

By understanding not only what happened in history but why people agree or disagree with historical interpretations, students can better respect varying views. Conversely, she noted that some believe teaching national history should be a “vehicle of social cohesion” and by promoting debate about the past, educators are promoting dissatisfaction with one’s country.

According to Jennifer McCoy, it is vital to teach about democracy and the role of democracy in society in schools, which is extremely rare in the United States even at the undergraduate level. Because this education and conversation is lacking, she believes the public is much more susceptible to believe, for example, people who say that the government is evil, and that taxation is a just a way for the government to gain funds rather than a way to support our society.


Why do we need the CEU Democracy Institute in Budapest today?

Julia Sonnevend, who posed this question, noted that it is poignant how the Democracy Institute remains in Budapest as a symbolic site, and that it should be a place where researchers from diverse backgrounds and countries can come together and tell their stories. Additionally, she noted that

younger generations may not be educated well on the topic of democracy, which is an abstract concept.

She hopes that DI will be a place where both liberals and conservatives can come together and discuss the status of democracy worldwide.

Anna Clark added that it is important for institutions to both contribute to public debate and to listen to the public in which they live, and Sonya Ziaja stressed the importance of strong democracies in the face of ever-increasing climate change disasters. Jennifer McCoy hopes that DI can be a catalyst for expanding the narrative to be more than a binary “either/or” and identity-based politics. Furthermore, she stressed the importance of teaching both the good and bad history, specifically in the United States, in order to counter-act pernicious polarization.

Finally, Alberto Alemanno expressed a desire for DI to be a solution-based entity, as

existing literature on democracy focuses on understanding and diagnosing specific phenomena, but it does not take the next step and provide solutions.

His hope is that DI encourages scholars to produce literature on the under-theorized democratic experiments happening around the world today. Additionally, he believes DI should encourage more engagement with the media and a “culture of public participation” in academia, and to promote public access and interaction.