Why we should ban ‘publics and elites’

May 1, 2010

A couple of years ago the FCO brought out a very useful collection of essays on Engagement.  The first chapter is by junior minister responsible for PD at that point, Jim Murphy where he quotes

    ‘David Kelly, a former British ambassador to Moscow, who served in 1920 as Third Secretary at the British representation in Buenos Aires, set out that the “primary business [of diplomats] has been and always will be to cultivate whatever groups actually influence policy”….Kelly derided as a ‘pathetic fallacy’ the ‘notion that the Ambassador should cruise around trying to get contacts with “the man in the street”’ .

    Murphy  continues to say that now  ‘in many countries, power has shifted from the elites to the public. The ‘pathetic fallacy’ has become a strategic necessity’

    In the next paragraph he says

    ‘But we need also to reach out to the public – to all those whose actions affect our ability to deliver – and work with them to develop and implement international policy solutions.’

    In these three statements Murphy moves from

    1. an image of diplomacy as  being about the groups that influence policy t0

    2. an invocation of ‘the man in the street’  and ‘the public’ and then back to

    3. ‘those who affect our ability to deliver’.

    It seems to me that statements 1 and 3 are the correct way to look at diplomacy whether public or not and that statement 2 is completely unhelpful.

    You cannot engage with ‘the public’ or ‘the man in the street’.  These are abstractions that obscure the complexity of contemporary society.  One of the attractions of a social network approach to PD is that you break down these abstractions into sets of social relations – some of whom are in a position to help or hinder you and others who aren’t.  Thinking in terms of networks forces you to think in terms of who you can reach and who you can influence versus who you need to reach and influence.  It also breaks down the opposition between ‘public’ and ‘elite’  rather than being absolute categories you find yourself dealing with different networks of actors.  The tools and channels that you can use to make a difference depend on the network that you are dealing with which in turn is a function of the issue. Practitioners see this immediately but I think that it’s important to emphasize this because it goes to the heart of what PD can and can’t do.


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