Conceptions of the open society: slippery, contested, and important

By Daniel Devine 

OpenSociety changes inRecent years have witnessed the increase of political distrust and the rise of populist parties all over Europe. These developments are said to endanger the open society. Yet, it is often left unclear what exactly an ‘open society’ entails. The concept, moreover, is not static: it is constantly being renegotiated between elites and the public in light of the new challenges facing Europe. A new project between OSEPI and d|part, supported by five country partners, aims to identify what the open society means to European publics and elites and to examine the trade-offs citizens are willing to make to achieve it. By understanding where citizens and elites draw the line between an ‘open’ and ‘closed’ society, the project will provide a clearer picture of those aspects of the open society that are in danger. Given that research has highlighted the importance of the open vs closed divide - expressed in a wide range of terminology, such as the cosmopolitans vs non-cosmopolitans, the nationalists vs globalists, and the somewheres vs anywheres - understanding whereand why this divide exists is fundamental to understanding contemporary European politics.

The concept itself has a long history: the ‘open society’, at least in those words, was first used in 1932 by Henri Bergson, but was popularised by Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies six years later, at the dawn of the Second World War. For both authors, the closed society was based around security, self-preservation, conformism, nativism, and tribalism. While the authors differ in their definitions of the open society –Bergson defined it as a society “which will, in principle, embrace all humanity” whereas Popper defined it as a society with “faith in man, in equalitarian justice, and in human reason” –both agreed that the institutions of the open society were those of liberal democracy. Bergson also held the view that the difference between open and closed was one of kind, not degree: in modern Europe, this approach has been adopted to some degree by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán who declared the liberal model of social organisation as dead, and aims to replace it with an illiberal state.  

But contemporary understandings don’t follow these classics: in most of Europe, it is a slippery concept full of contradictions about the line between open and closed and about its core valuesAn example can be found in Germany, where the interior minister Thomas de Maizière stated, in reference to a burka ban, that “We are an open society […] we are not burka”. Here, he argued that “to ‘show face’ is the expression of our democratic coexistence”. For him, it may be that social conformity is a key feature of the open society. Others might argue, however, that freedom of expression is a much more important element of the open society. This is just one example of the concept being deployed, yet understood in radically different ways.

It is not just where the lines are drawn but which values they’re drawn under. Nick Clegg, for instance, evokes social mobility as a value of the open society, thereby arguably going far beyond a minimal definition of what an open society entails. The recent coverage on the fundamental divide between ‘openness’ and ‘closedness’ highlights the importance of understanding what the ‘open society’ means to Europeans and where they draw the line between open and closed. The dynamism of the concept and how it is employed and understood amongst elites and civil society is one of its virtues. Exactly because it is being renegotiated when faced with new challenges and opportunities, learning about how it is understood allows to see where and why the boundaries between open and closed exist.

The ‘Situation Room’ project will provide this insight. Through a representative survey, an embedded experiment, and interviews with political and civil society actors in six countries, it will gauge the trade-offs people are willing to make andexplore their motivations. By developing our understanding of the concept we both fill it with meaning and come to a better understanding of the fundamental factors shaping contemporary European politics.

As the project progresses, OSEPI, d|part, and our country partners will be publishing regular blogs and analyses on this website. You can sign up for updates here.

The author of this article, Daniel Devine, is a PhD student at the University of Southampton and research consultant to OSEPI.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Daniel Devine.