Investigating Cultural Civil Society

Investigating Cultural Civil Society
Civil Society and EU Cultural Policy – A research project on ‘Voices of Culture’

What is civil society? How do the cultural sector, civil society and the governing sphere interrelate?How can cultural actors from civil society make their voices heard?

Depending on the geographical context, academic viewpoint or political stance, these questions can be approached in manifold ways. Indeed, the understanding of civil society, in particular its role and the relationship to the governing sphere are often debated. In the EU, a dialogue platform called ‘Voices of Culture’ tries to establish a connection between cultural actors and policy makers. It constitutes a novel process of policy coordination, aiming at strengthening the ‘advocacy capacity of the cultural sector in policy debates on culture at European level, while encouraging it to work in a more collaborative way’[1]. Whilst the dialogue platform constitutes an opportunity to include voices of civil society, an analysis of underlying values, norms and beliefs contributes to the ongoing debate about civil society and its contested position in the political arena.

The inclusion of civil society in EU governance is often associated with the Lisbon Strategy and the formation of the Economic and Monetary Union in the late 1990s and early 2000s[2]. In this context, the EU aimed at becoming ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world’[3]. With the ‘White Paper on Governance’ from 2001, the EU laid the foundation for new modes of governance, following five main principles: ‘openness’, ‘participation’, ‘accountability’, ‘effectiveness’ and ‘coherence’[4]. The policy field of culture was also subject to this ‘vast reform of governance’[5].

With the new agenda for culture in 2007[6]the Structured Dialogue with cultural actors from civil society was established alongside the Open Method of Coordination (OMC), constituting ‘new’ non-hierarchical, voluntary and open processes of cooperation[7].

Under the current Structured Dialogue framework in EU cultural policy, ‘Voices of Culture’, several sessions have been and are still being organised. These sessions involve cultural actors from civil society coming together and discussing a chosen topic at a brainstorming session[8]. Topics range from ‘social inclusion: partnering with other sectors’, ‘audience development via digital means’, to ‘the inclusion of refugees and migrants through culture’[9]. The latter, was subject to investigation in the course of my Master’s research project at King’s College London in collaboration with Arts Cabinet, ‘Between Neoliberalism and Democracy: the inclusion of cultural actors from civil society in EU cultural policy-making.[10]’

Civil Society and EU Cultural Policy – A research project

In this context, this research project is dedicated to the field of cultural policy studies and the inclusion of cultural actors from civil society. Applying Foucault’s analytical tool of ‘governmentality’ to a mixed approach of policy document analysis and interviews, this research investigates the rationales and power dynamics behind the Structured Dialogue sessionfrom June 2016 that addressed the theme ‘the inclusion of refugees and migrants through culture’[11]. Whilst the theme of the 2016 dialogue – the intersection of culture and migration – constitutes an interesting topic, it plays a minor role in this study. This dissertation critically examines the processof the Structured Dialogue and the rationales behind the working method, asking: Why is civil society included in EU cultural policy-making? How do the power dynamics of the 2016 Structured Dialogue play out?

Between Democracy and Neoliberalism

Rather than revealing a straightforward reasoning behind governance, this research project highlights the complexities of ‘governmentality’ that originate from the context of the EU. Taking this angle, the findings show how the 2016 Structured Dialogue works as a ‘practical feature of government’[12], incorporating two distinct ‘families of governmentality’[13]: democracy and neoliberalism.

The autonomous mediator
‘The Structured Dialogue is crucial. Otherwise EU cultural policy would be made in some kind of ivory tower of bureaucrats.’ (Victor, participant interview)

Illustrated with this quote from an interview with a participant of the 2016 Structured Dialogue, the dialogue platform is shaped by bottom-up characteristics. The interviews with civil society participants and policy officers provided an in-depth insight into the individuals’ efforts to represent a multiplicity of different voices from the cultural sector. Their aim was closely related to the understanding of cultural actors from civil society being ‘close to the ground’, mediating between the EU and its citizens. The respondents’ critical reflection inferred awareness of the difficulty to achieve this aim. They referred to traces of elitism that shaped the 2016 Structured Dialogue, suggesting that a more diverse composition of the group would be beneficial. In addition to these representational elements, the Structured Dialogue constituted an autonomous sphere for cultural actors from civil society to discuss and criticise EU cultural policy ‘from the outside’.

Managing at a distance
‘Expecting civil society to provide something the COM often pays experts a huge amount of money to do. My feeling was that we were working for the COM for free.’ (Sarah, participant interview)

The second family of governmentality illuminates the Structured Dialogue in the context of neoliberalism. The analysis of the dialogue indicated how this rationale that expands economic valuation to all sectors of life affects the Structured Dialogue. The managerial feature of the dialogue was not only limited to cultural actors from civil society ‘providing a service’ to the COM, but also altered the relationships among actors from the sector. Organising and structuring cultural organisations and the relations among them, as well as facilitating networking was perceived as something worth striving for. Following these arguments, the Structured Dialogue was deployed to optimise policy-making by managing EU cultural policy at a distance. In addition to these aspects, the service that was delivered by the civil society actors to the COM was not remunerated. In the context of the arts and cultural sector this notion of volunteerism is particularly bittersweet – given the fact that in many cases cultural labour is already underestimated and underpaid.

As contrasting as these two rationales often seem, this research has shown how both families of thought frame the inclusion of civil society actors in EU cultural policy-making.

Attempts to ‘democratise’ cultural policy-making co-exist next to attempts to ‘managerialise’ the process. Presenting these two ‘governmentalities’, this research illuminated why civil society is included in EU cultural policy-making, contributing to the debate on the complex role of cultural actors from civil society in the political arena.

[1]Voices of Culture, Available at:
[2]Copeland, and Papadimitriou,eds., 2012.
[3]Mattocks,2017, p. 48
[4]European Commission,2001. Available at:
[6]European Commission,2007. Available at:
[7]Mattocks 2017
[8]Voice of Culture,
[10]Download Link Dissertation
[11]Voices of Culture, Available at:
[12]Banjac, 2017
[13]Pick,Holmes,and Brueckner,2011