Margit van Wessel researches present-day manifestations of citizenship and civil society, focusing on the dynamics between citizens and political and governmental institutions and processes. In many democracies, questions are raised about the nature and limits of citizen engagement and agency with regard to the challenges facing them and society at large. Institutions such as political parties, churches, unions, national representative governments do not have the political role they had in earlier decades. We also know many citizens, while unorganized, are opinionated and demand more influence for citizens on political decisions, while others appear to turn away in disappointment. But in what sense and how do publics come together then, and define, and engage with, questions of common concern or decline to do so? How should we understand the conditions shaping citizens interactions on politics and policy, and the nature of their communicative engagements? How do the worlds of formal political and governmental institutions and informal citizen politics come together in these processes or fail to do so? And how can formal political and governmental institutions in turn relate to the realities of present-day publics? Through my research, I seek to contribute to the development of communicative governance.
A related research interest is civil society. Civil society organisations offer spaces in which people can develop citizen roles and contribute to change. There is growing evidence for certain civil society organisations taking a new and more independent stance from formal political institutions and processes. I see a potentially prime example of this in the explosion of cooperative energy initiatives, in the Netherlands and elsewhere In my research, I seek to advance our understanding of these developments: how do citizens engage with each other and with other actors, and develop and enact new identities and roles? How do they thereby shift and transform the roles of established institutions and forms of problem solving? To what extent and in what ways do we see transformations of citizenship, democracy and politics?
A final key interest is civil society advocacy in international development. Civil society organisations in the field of international development organise across state and continental boundaries, to influence national and international decision making by private, state, and international actors. This civil society advocacy is one way by which transnational democracy may take shape, addressing the transnational nature of many of our problems and potential solutions. But many questions emerge. What does such advocacy contribute to change? For whom? And how can organisations enhance the effectiveness, democratic quality and legitimacy of such advocacy?