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Record number 507447
Title Bonding by doing : the dynamics of self-organizing groups of citizens taking charge of their living environment
Author(s) Dam, R.I. van
Source University. Promotor(en): Katrien Termeer; Andre van der Zande. - Wageningen : Wageningen University - ISBN 9789462578975 - 188 p.
Department(s) Alterra - Biodiversity and policy
Publication type Dissertation, internally prepared
Publication year 2016
Keyword(s) citizens - groups - public authorities - public domain - living conditions - social participation - democracy - governance - case studies - society - burgers - groepen - overheid - overheidsdomein - levensomstandigheden - sociale participatie - democratie - gevalsanalyse - samenleving
Categories Public Administration (General)

This thesis is about groups of citizens following their ideals and taking charge of their living environment. The research set out to investigate the practice of citizens’ initiatives and self-organizing communities, seen as groups of people who organize themselves, take action in the public domain, create public values and organize and manage their social, cultural and green living environment. The topicality of the concept of citizens’ initiatives and self-organizing communities—from empirical, normative and scientific perspectives—sparked an interest in investigating their actual practice: people’s reasons for getting involved, the meaning they assign to place and what people mean for places, the activities and the strategies, the (informal) organization, how the initiatives develop and the relations they entail. Besides investigating how citizens’ initiatives and self-organizing communities develop and achieve things, the research examines the implications for governance processes, and the role and approach of citizens and government organizations in these processes. A micro-perspective is used to focus on analysing how citizens’ initiatives and self-organizing communities act on the road from ideal to realization. Moreover, the practice of groups of citizens taking charge of their living environment is approached here from a relational perspective, focussing on questions around bonding processes and interaction, and the dynamics that come with them. As a consequence, the research questions are: (1) how do the dynamics within and between groups of people taking charge of their living environment and their surroundings manifest themselves? and (2) how do groups of people taking charge of their living environment affect governance processes and vice versa?

In this thesis, an interpretive research approach was chosen, based on case studies and the principles of openness and heterogeneity. The interpretive research approach made it possible to start with a general interest in the development of groups of people taking charge of their living environment and from there to delve deeper into the aspects that seemed relevant. Importantly, particularly given that this study focuses on people’s approaches and activities, this approach views the social as constructed in the intertwinement of action and meaning; it also values various ways in which meaning arises, including informal and less rational approaches and values. In total, seventeen cases of citizens’ initiatives and self-organizing communities are studied. Of these seventeen, one case is studied in great depth and at various points in time, another seven in moderate depth and nine cases are studied at a broader, more illustrative and exploratory level. The data was collected through a combination of interviews, casual conversations, participatory observation, non-participatory observation and learning network meetings, as well as a study of secondary material. The qualitative analysis took place in iterative phases in which several analytical concepts were applied. Triangulation was ensured by using a variety of methods and theories. The findings are presented in five empirical chapters (Chapters 2 to 6 of this thesis).

Chapter 2 describes a study in which the transition in societal organization from a heavy reliance on the state to self-organization is examined by analysing two self-organizing communities. The case studies of the ADM squatter community [Amsterdamse Doe-het-Zelf Maatschappij - Amsterdam do-it-yourself company] and the Golfresidence Dronten show how these communities of self-organizing citizens created their own residential arrangements and took the initiative in developing a unique spatial environment. The role self-organization plays differs depending on how the communities were established and the inhabitants’ motivations. There are also differences in the physical appearance of the two communities and the communities’ organization and rules. Although quite different self-organizing communities, both are manifestations of alternative living arrangements, both socially and spatially, and address the differences in citizens’ needs concerning living arrangements in society in general. As such, concluding remarks concern the value of and need for heterogeneity.

Chapter 3 presents an analysis of the social and spatial bonding processes affecting a squatter community who lived at Fort Pannerden for about seven years. Besides describing the relation between the squatters and the fort, the chapter analyses the influence of the squatters’ actions on the development of the fort and on the local community and local governmental organizations in terms of social and spatial bonding processes. It shows how a non-institutional actor—a squatter community—was able to breathe new life into a national monument that had been abandoned for several decades, reconnecting a cultural heritage site to society and vice versa.

Chapter 4 analyses the citizens’ initiatives Natural Area Grasweg and Collective Farmers of Essen and Aa’s in terms of their evolution, their organization and the strategies adopted. Strategies are understood as something people do, rather than something organizations and firms have. Natural Area Grasweg chose a formal approach for the organization of their initiative, adjusting it to institutional settings. For Collective Farmers of Essen and Aa’s, by contrast, it is an explicit goal to get local residents involved, fostering a sense of community and collectively improving the cultural historical landscape. Both cases are viewed here as the contingent product of a self-transforming organization, and a way of relating its internal processes to the outside world. The chapter analyses the ability of citizens’ initiatives to adapt and to mobilize, which makes them a powerful and relevant development in the governance area.

Chapter 5 focusses on the mutually activated process of subjectification in citizens’ initiatives. Analysing the citizens’ initiatives Lingewaard Natural, Border Experience Enschede and Residents’ Association and Action Committee Horstermeerpolder, it is argued that the discourses produced by governmental organizations on what it entails to be an active citizen have a performative effect on citizens’ initiatives, which adapt themselves, anticipate what is expected of them and act strategically with respect to these discourses.

Chapter 6 presents an exploratory study of the citizens’ initiatives Sustainable Soester quarter, Caetshage City Farm, Emma’s Court, Power of Utrecht, Beautiful Wageningen, Ecopeace, As We Speak, Canal Park Leiden and Harderwijk Steiner School Natural Playground. The study shows how the participatory society and information society come together at the community level. Regarding the role of information in how citizens’ initiatives operate and develop, it is concluded that informational capital is fundamental to the realization of citizens’ initiatives, that there is a dynamic between social capital, human capital and informational capital and that informational capital is generated, identified, used and enlarged through the relational strategies of bonding, bridging and linking. It is a process which works both ways and reinforces citizens’ initiatives.

Chapter 7 synthesizes the outcomes of the five chapters and provides an answer to the research questions. The research revealed four sets of dynamics in and between groups of people taking charge of their living environment. Firstly, there are the dynamics of the drivers causing citizens to take charge of their living environment. Citizens’ initiatives and self-organizing communities are triggered by an interplay of drivers that originate on the one hand in the citizens’ ideals and their intrinsic will to do something, and on the other hand in dissatisfaction with the current situation, whether locally, at the policy level or at a broader societal level. They often choose subjects close to their everyday lives but with a broader societal component. As a consequence, the interplay between public interest and self-interest is another important driver in how and why citizens’ initiatives and self-organizing communities operate. Secondly, in the operation, development and realization of groups of self-organizing citizens, there is a dynamic relationship between social capital, human capital and informational capital. These forms of capital can be seen as ‘resources’ that ‘feed’ the communities and initiatives. Social, human and informational capital are forms of capital related to a changing society in which citizens play a vital role in creating public values and where other, less tangible, forms of capital become important. The various forms of capital interact and can reinforce each other, contributing to the development of the initiatives. The third set of dynamics concerns the dynamics of the relational strategies of bonding, bridging and linking. Using the interrelated relational strategies, groups of people taking charge of their living environment connect with different actors, both institutional and non-institutional, at different times and levels of intensity. By establishing connections with others, citizens’ initiatives embed themselves in society. They interact with others, using and at the same time growing their social, human and informational capital. Fourthly, the dynamics between social and spatial bonding are revealed in groups of people taking charge of their living environment. Place turned out to be more than the context; often it is also part of the objective. The citizens in the initiatives connected with a place and thought and behaved in a certain way, but they also enabled others to connect (or reconnect) with a place and to think and act in a certain way in relation to the place. So these citizens mobilize and connect people. When groups of people take charge of their living environment, we clearly see that social bonding processes (bonding, bridging and linking) and spatial bonding processes (cognitive, affective and conative) are inextricably intertwined: they interact with, influence and reinforce one another. This can be symbolized by the double helix, two DNA strings twisted around each other.

Furthermore, the interaction in governance processes was dealt with by summarizing the patterns and mechanisms found in the interaction between self-organizing citizens and others, particularly between citizens and governmental organizations. A pattern was analysed in how the internal process of groups of citizens taking charge of their living environment relates to the outside world. In this process of self-transformation, the identity of a citizens’ initiative—seen broadly as how they define themselves and how they operate—is influenced by their interpretations of the immediate and relevant outside world, which in turn shapes their strategies. In this process of self-transformation, specifically in relation to governmental organizations, citizens’ initiatives tend to internalize the assumptions about what is considered important to the relevant governmental institutions, which often leads to them pursuing formal strategies and adopting a formal identity. The case studies showed that government officials often only tend to like those citizens’ initiatives that they can relate to, in terms of both content and form. Citizens’ initiatives that have other objectives, take a different course of action, have a different form or express a different opinion are often bullied or treated as irrelevant. This governmental dominancy is influenced in turn by the way citizens’ initiatives act and position themselves with respect to governmental organizations. They adapt, anticipate and act strategically with regard to their images of governmental organizations and their interpretations of these organizations’ wishes. In other words, they apply the techniques of adaptation, anticipation and framing themselves constructively. So in the practice of Dutch citizens’ initiatives, the initiators are both made subject and subject themselves to governmental organizations. The initiators can be labelled as obedient and submissive, but also as smart and strategic. This leads to the conclusion that there is teamwork going on between citizens and governmental organizations, in which there is a mutual reproduction of government thinking.

Assuming we want to move towards a more citizen-driven society, this thesis reveals that there is indeed a great deal of potential in citizens. Reflecting further on new practices, one can say both citizens and governmental institutions need to learn and to take the next step. There is a need for an interplay of forces in which all actors contribute in their own way to the joint creation of public values. Although the development of self-organization is also taking place on the continuum between citizens and the market, as well as in a variety of different combinations of these players, one can say that the way to go forward, specifically in the relationship between citizens and government, is to aim for an interplay in which ‘learning by doing’ is followed by ‘bonding by doing’. To conclude, groups of people taking charge of their living environment (or something else) is an expression of an informal and participatory democracy that is giving shape to democratic values. This ‘do-ocracy’ is not just an alternative but can also be a complementary form of democracy that meets a need related to democratic values. Democracy can be seen as an ongoing process which needs working on.

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