Practice-Research Engagement and Civil Society in a globalizing world by David Brown

This small book is a welcome and original contribution to the fast-swelling literature on civil society. It promises ‘to explore the importance of practice-research engagement for civil society actors’ through historical review, hard analysis, and the documentation of a January 2001 workshop of ‘action-oriented researchers’ and ‘reflective practitioners’. It delivers exhaustively on this promise.

At first blush, the central thesis of the book – that by getting together civil society practitioners and researchers are better at solving problems than they are apart – is self-evident. But as one reads through the careful analysis of the obstacles and challenges faced by practice-research engagement, one develops an informed respect for those outstanding cases where it has yielded significant global dividends for humanity, such as the partnership struck in the 1960s between ecologists and activists that launched the modern environmental movement. More importantly, the authors provide a detailed analytical framework matching different objectives of practice-research engagement (eg solve puzzles, identify issues, assess interventions) with implications for implementation. An extremely useful set of principles for practice-research engagement is derived along the way.

The chapter focusing specifically on building transnational civil society stands up satisfactorily, if not outstandingly, after 11 September: In outlining ‘several challenges that must be addressed swiftly and decisively’, it cites ‘a response to the growth of conservative and regressive manifestations of transnational civil society’ including ‘various religious fundamentalisms that seek not only self-preservation but domination, and the resurgence of networks like the Neo-Nazis around the world’.

There is something unsatisfying, however, in the transnational chord that sounds throughout the book. One has the feeling of something unfinished, something whose ultimate shape is not yet known. The book is a tightly argued case for a stronger voice for civil society in shaping the new global order, but transnational civil society per se may not be the best ground upon which to make the larger argument of the book for practice-research engagement.

Editor David Brown makes a parallel point when he notes that ‘we need more documentation of specific cases and how they have produced innovations in practice valued by practitioners and new knowledge valued by researchers’. I agree. Globalization is unquestionably a defining issue today, but it is far from the only one where practitioners and researchers can come together. Nor is it necessarily representative of the whole domain of practice-research engagement. Finally, one suspects that local settings may be more conducive to the web and woof of maintaining professional relationships between doers and thinkers.

The most exciting contribution of the book derives directly from the focus on transnational civil society and in so doing belies my impatience with global obsessions. But before I undercut my argument, I would add that the ‘civil society legitimacy discussion guide’ is as relevant to citizen-police liaison committee kiosks on the street corners of Karachi as it is at the protests at WTO meetings in Seattle or Doha. This discussion guide is an indispensable tool for any – and I mean any – citizen organization interested in strengthening its societal legitimacy. I strongly urge the authors to adapt it for the web.

David Bonbright is Director, NGO Enhancement Programme, Aga Khan Foundation. He can be contacted by email at David.bonbright@Akdn.ch

Practice-Research Engagement and Civil Society in a globalizing world
David Brown (ed) CIVICUS/Hauser Center of Harvard University
$7 non-members/$5 members

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The papers from the January 2001 workshop on building transnational civil society are available at the Hauser Center website at http://www.ksghauser.harvard.edu


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