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Public Life of Ideas Book

Public Life of Ideas Book Project

The Public Life of Ideas research network is at work on a book that investigates how public engagement takes place today, a time in which old ways of mediating collective life – through dialogue and debate – seem to have collapsed.  All over the world, dialogue seems impossible across partisan politics and religious divides. Many societies appear to have lost the capacity to solve problems through talk, whether confronting local problems or global issues, such as climate change and nuclear proliferation.

In this book, we ask how ideas about mediating collective life emerge, gather force, become potent, enforce or challenge the status quo, hibernate, disappear or get routed. We look at how this has happened historically, and how it happens today. We draw primarily on insights and materials from of South Africa - where these processes are especially sharply etched - for their capacity to speak to global developments.

The book shows the ways in which certain key institutions and processes both facilitate and corral public discussion. These structures – parliaments, media, debating forums, societal institutions – have historically been a major force in democratic societies, often overshadowing a wide range of disparate and sometimes chaotic processes that seek to engage with collective life and societal issues. However, the book goes beyond a focus on such normative processes of deliberation to map and theorise the myriad forms of engagement in public life well beyond the formal spaces of deliberation. In doing so, the book explains why traditional ways of mediating collective challenges no longer have the same purchase, and argues for the importance of understanding and theorising the wider landscape of public engagement.

Researchers met at the APC workshop in November 2016 to present drafts of potential chapters for the book.  The workshop papers, along with further invited papers,  are being revised for publication.

See: Public Life of Ideas network

Between 2008 and 2017 the Network existed as a loose research grouping that grew out of, but extended beyond, the former Constitution of Public Intellectual Life Research Project (based at the University of the Witwatersrand from 2004 – 2007). The Network shared with the former project an overlapping research interest in exploring notions of publicness, and the limits of the concepts of the public sphere, publics and counterpublics. Cognisant of the limits of the Habermasian public sphere, the Network supported the theorisation of publicness in terms of an ongoing, dynamic space of encounter with discourse, understanding that such discourse need not occur through dialogue between co-present interlocutors, but may unfold in diverse media-scapes, journals and, increasingly, in visual forms. The Network supported a community of emerging scholars in the publication of their theses as books and peer-reviewed articles. It facilitated ongoing collaborations and inter-institutional connections among its members.  The work of the Network, and of its predecessor, the Constitution of Public Intellectual Life Project, is featured in the two-part symposium, Exceeding Public Spheres – Social Dynamics, 35(2), 2009 & 36(1), 2010, and in a special edition of  Equid Novi 32(3), 2011. ] For more on the predecessor Constitution of Public Intellectual Life Project click here.

Constitution of Public Intellectual Life Project

The Constitution of Public Intellectual Life (PUIL) project was established by Carolyn Hamilton in 2004 and ran at the University of the Witwatersrand until 2008.   The project focussed on the forms and conditions of public deliberation in post-repressive regime South Africa. 

The project had three components:

Research: trans-disciplinary research into the nature of public deliberation in historical and contemporary South Africa;

Pedagogy:  development of a post-graduate pedagogical model capable of supporting trans-disciplinary student research in an emerging field; 

Public Interventions: engaging the terrain of public deliberation. This was achieved primarily through a sub-project: The Platform for Public Deliberation, led by Dr. Xolela Mangcu. 


Core Research projects 2004-2008.

The Media and Public Debate research node: This project began in the media and public deliberation node of the Constitution of Public Intellectual Life project, in which researchers examined a number of media-related themes. With the conclusion of the Public Intellectual Life project, Media and Public Debate became a project of the Wits Journalism programme, led by Lesley Cowling, inheriting some of the original themes and inaugurating new ones. The project aims to contribute to an understanding of the role of the media in public deliberation in South Africa. It does this by conducting original research, immersing working journalists in the study of media debate, and through public discussion of the findings. For more on this project, see here.

Conference: Paradoxes of the Postcolonial Public Sphere: South African Democracy at the Crossroads, 2008.

Exceeding Public Spheres (Two –part symposium) – Social Dynamics, 35(2), 2009 & 36(1), 2010

Worthy Ancestors: Archive, Public Deliberation and Identity in South Africa

To the Brink

Other publications 2004-2007

Public Engagement

Identity and the Archive and Public Lecture series 2006.

Public Conversations on African Leadership 2007

Public Lecture, in collaboration with the South Africa –India Research Group, 2007: Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Achmat Dangor and Pamila Gupta, chaired by Xolela Mangcu.

National System, Public Interest: A conference on archive in South Africa

Archives at the Crossroads: Open Report to the Minister of Arts and Culture, 2007

The ArchivalPlatform, see the Archival Platform:

  1. Identity and the Archive Public Lecture Series 2006
  2. Worthy Ancestors (book published in 2011)
  3. National System, Public Interest Conference
  4. Archives and the Crossroads Open Report
  5. Paradoxes of the Postcolonial Public
  6. Publications
  7. List of July 2010 workshop papers

See the APC Research Development Workshop 2016 abstracts