The institutionalisation of civic initiatives


  • Francesco Campagnari Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales


Civic initiatives, Institutionalisation, Direct civic action, Public problems




In the last decades planning research has explored the actions that citizens perform to directly tackle problematic situations and public problems through different lenses, ranging from self-organisation to social innovation, from autonomous practices to bottom-up public policies. Across these conceptualisations, scholars have often framed public administrations and civic initiatives as two distinct sectors of society: the first riddled with institutional rigidity which limits their capacity to face emerging problematic situations; the second as experimental processes able to tackle public problems through direct action, autonomously creating new public policies for unformalised needs (Cellamare, 2014). Public administrations have been interpreted as institutions and civic initiatives as their opposite, free from institutional reductionism and the normative power of past experience. Planning and policymaking have then often considered civic initiatives for their ability to generate direct solutions to problematic situations. 

Considering this interpretation, the contribution presents the results of a recent research project on the institutionalisation of civic initiatives. Drawing from the pragmatist concepts of civic action (Lichterman, 2020), problematic situations, public problems, and experience (Dewey, 1927; Cefaï, 2019), it moves the attention from civic initiatives as a sector of urban action to direct civic action as a style of direct intervention on problematic situations. It adopts a dynamic conceptualisation of institutions, that takes into account the fact that institutionalised and non-institutionalised actions are not rigidly separated categories, as the latter can dynamically evolve over time into the former through processes of institutionalisation (Berger and Luckmann, 1966).

The exploration of the histories, everyday activities and encounters with new problematic situations of two long-standing European civic initiatives reveals three main results. First, civic initiatives are not always experimental, as they can adopt institutionalised engagements with their problematic situations, reproducing practices that they themselves may have institutionalised. Second, in the framework of the relationship between civic initiatives and public policies, civic initiatives can engage both in the elaboration of new policies or sustain the continuative reproduction of routinised public effects, seen as institutionalised public policies. Third, single civic initiatives are contributing to the institutionalisation and innovation of direct civic action as an approach to tackle problematic situations in broader communities at national and international levels. This process of diffusion is based on the scaling up and legitimisation of solutions to cultural and artistic issues effectively enacted at the local level.

These results have various implications for the understanding of civic initiatives and for their involvement in the governance of public problems through policy-making and planning. Namely, the contribution suggests seeing long-standing civic initiatives not just as experiments that can generate new solutions or innovate government-led policies, but also as tested, effective and institutionalised practices and policies. In this light, we see that they present similar issues to other institutions, but they also generate continuative public goods and effects. Finally, these results highlight how the effective experience of these civic initiatives can be used by other actors to develop new policies and plans.

Author Biography

  • Francesco Campagnari, Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales

    Marie Skłodowska-Curie Post-doctoral fellow


Berger, P.L. and Luckmann, T. (1966) The social construction of reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York: Anchor Books.

Cefaï, D. (2019) ‘Les problèmes, leurs expériences et leurs publics: Une enquête pragmatiste’, Sociologie et sociétés, 51(1–2), pp. 33–91. Available at:

Cellamare, C. (2014) ‘Self-organisation, individuation and freedom practices’, Territorio, 68, pp. 21–27. Available at:

Dewey, J. (1927) The public and its problems. New York. Swallow Press.

Lichterman, P. (2020) How Civic Action Works, Fighting for Housing in Los Angeles. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.