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12th Interpretive Policy Analysis Conference

Activism, Populism, and the Future of the Democratic State

When: 5-7 July 2017

Where: Leicester (UK)

Organisation: De Montford University


There is little doubt that the contemporary condition in 2017 was marked by a major challenge to accepted values, institutions, styles of policymaking, forms of governance and modes of political engagement. The rise of new political forces and movements had undermined apparently fixed political arrangements (such as the European Union or mainstream political parties), as well as sedimented ideologies and mentalities, such as liberal democracy, globalization or neoliberalism. The global problems of climate change, immigration, wars and uneven economic development had provoked radical movements and activism from the Left and the Right of the spectrum across the globe. They had also bequeathed a series of wicked policy problems of great complexity.

‘Activism’ and ‘populism’, ‘the activist’ and ‘the people’, campaigning and protest, often stand in opposition to the ethos, practices and processes of policy-making and governance. Technocratic appeals to expertise, the hierarchical design of participatory forums, and the coercive dynamics of collaborative spaces have all encouraged the drawing of sharp boundaries between policy, the state and activism. For many observers, these boundaries appear to have hardened, leading to new forms of campaigning and popular protest. Yet, at the same time, the ‘accepted realities’ of activism are also called into question. Different types of activism are increasingly recognised within the state apparatus, which are driven in part by individuals working at the borders of the state and civil society. Equally, innovative forms of co-production are arguably forging new alliances between state institutions and lay experts as shifting coalitions come together to address societal challenges such as climate change, mobility or social cohesion. Indeed, such reflections are challenging traditional models of the academic, calling for new ways of engaging with communities under the banner of the academic-activist.

With these debates in mind, IPA 2017 aimed to trigger a dialogue to critically evaluate existing conceptions of activism and populism within the policy process. It questioned what we mean by ‘activism’ and ‘activists’, ‘populism’ and ‘the people’, and their impact on governance, policymaking and capitalist democracies in different contexts. It also grappled with the array of public controversies that had recently surfaced in contemporary politics and society, while inquiring into the emergence of alternative visions, imaginaries and policy styles. Here the conference assessed the potentialities of innovative forms of democratic policymaking and political engagement in harnessing and channelling the new forces at play.

Keynote speakers

Prof. David Howarth
Prof. Mustafa Dikec
Prof. Donatella Della Porta


Steven Griggs
Nisha Solanki