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The Transformation of Popular Politics in Europe’s Long Nineteenth Century

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - TRANSPOP (The Transformation of Popular Politics in Europe’s Long Nineteenth Century)

Reporting period: 2020-02-01 to 2021-01-31

The project studies how ordinary people in Europe developed and adopted, in increasing number, the practices of political participation through civil society and social movement initiatives creating thus an important institutional component of modernity. Empirically, the project aims to recover the neglected richness of civil society initiatives across Western Europe in the long 19th century. Theoretically, the project strives to develop a conceptually robust alternative to predominant class-based and single cause accounts of social change by taking into account, in the case of these movements, the inherently polyphonic heterogeneity of modernity and capture the inherently path-dependent and agent-specific causality of change.

The subject matter of the project contributes to the important task of rediscovering and elucidating the common European heritage of popular involvement in politics, of democratization, and of ordinary people taking their fate in their hands. To insist on this legacy of increasing and progressive popular empowerment has proven particularly timely against two challenges that arose after the project's inception: the concomitant rise of authoritarian politics and of new forms of demagogic and paradoxically anti-democratic populism. We want to present to academic and wider audiences the positive heritage of democratic civil society (with all its problems) and amplify its positive and resilient potential against increasing subversion of democratic norms and demagogic manipulation of reality.

The interrelated objectives of the project are:

(1) to create innovative data sets of public mobilization in the European long nineteenth century and offer them to the scholarly community, thus spurring further research on the topic,
(2) analyze the data sets created in order to uncover causal dynamics obscured by prevalent accounts,
(3) experiment with methodological innovations in the coding and analyzing the data, and,
(4) create a new theoretical framework for explaining the rise of popular politics
The work performed falls under five general areas: data collection and coding, analyses, conceptual advances, knowledge transfer and interdisciplinary collaboration, and publications.

The most important results are in three conceptual areas:
1) We provided a new, evidence based account of the dynamics of changing popular politics in Europe's past, based on the predominant role of political innovators.
2) We highlighted the often neglected cultural work of revalorization and redefinition of concepts, showing how concepts like "democracy" and "slavery" were actively redefined by political innovators and how this redefinition changed the political culture of Europe.
3) We proposed an interactional connectivity model of collectivity composition, which invalidates predominant models based on the assumption that enacting collectivities, such as social movements, are based on the similarity of their participants.
Despite a substantial body of research, the rich history and legacy of popular politics in the European past remains unexplored. The field has been dominated by structural approaches that privilege class as the primary category of analysis and by a general fixation on the present of protest activities. Both of these approaches fail to meaningfully connect present day social movements to their historical roots. Further still, the field largely conceptualize popular political activities as national movements rather than acknowledging their transnational character.

Another contribution we have been working on is an emerging theoretical framework on popular politics and social movement that we have tentatively called "agentic theory of advocacy networks." It presents progress in the fields of social movement studies and in the fields of network analysis.

Addressing social movement studies, it proposes a forceful re-conceptualization of the ontology of the social formations and corporate actors that enact popular politics. Our theoretical framework (1) posits a networked structure of connectedness as the fundamental ontological reality of such formations and (2) examines the interactional complexes through which such connectedness is created by actors.

Addressing network analysis, our theory describes and explains the processes of tie creation and maintenance instead of assuming social networks as ontological givens. This is an important contribution because theoretical conceptualizations of network formation and network change are far and few between. In fact, the only existing paradigm for tracing network change relies on mathematical manipulation of data that comes with a host of assumptions about the meaning individuals impart on their actions within networks. We propose a different theoretical paradigm for understanding network formation, change, and even dissolution that is sensitive to the meanings created in the interactions that form and maintain social networks.

One of the objectives of this project is to understand one of the hallmarks of European modernity: the transformations through which ordinary people were able to become active political agents in a long-term process of democratization of popular politics. In other words, our project seeks to get at the core of European democratic heritage. This focus has been brought to unexpected prominence by two intertwined processes that came to light after the project started: an erosion of democracy and democratic norms globally and the misuse of mass participation for the achievement of anti-democratic goals. Our research has unexpected relevance to these processes. Overall, there was until recently among analysts and writers a general complacency about the inevitable ascendance of liberal democracy, especially after the fall of the Soviet bloc. Now we are in a situation where Russian leadership and its allies in Europe and beyond are actively undermining the ideals of liberal democracy. While our research is not explicitly political or normative, one implication of the histories of popular political participation we have uncovered is the fact that previously disenfranchised groups of people and their representative (religious minorities, middle classes barred from direct participation in parliamentary politics, women, champions of the liberation of enslaved individuals) engaged in long, hard yet ultimately successful battles in order to not just represent their interests but also, in the process, change of the rules of the political games so that they can express their views in the political arena. With the surge of anti-democracy and demagogic populism, these achievements are threatened. We trust that our research will contribute to to increase public awareness of an European heritage that needs to be nurtured and salvaged.