The Scales of Socially-Engaged Practice: Towards a Shared Language 

by Hannah Hull, 2007

In this essay I will plot a scale of socially-engaged practice across a broad field of

specialisms. This ranges from practice that is socially-engaged purely through the nature of the practice - for example architecture in unavoidably engaged with society - to practice which consciously engages society at every stage of a project, from it's conception to it's realisation. 

There are socially-engaged practitioners using art, theatre, architecture, design, and/or the design and policy of community services provision, with shared processes, theories and aims based around dialogue and extensive engagement with society. I will show that highly-engaged social practice is not just cross-disciplinary practice, but an independent discipline.

A major problem facing socially-engaged practitioners is how to differentiate themselves from others using the same tools and producing what superficially appear to be similar 'products'. For example a socially-engaged architect and a builder. Commissioners and users expect certain things of certain practices. A lack of more complex terminology in the language of commissioning public projects means an architect is seen to simply designs buildings, a Public Artist just makes visually aesthetic ornamentation, and a theatre company's success can be measured by 'bums on seats'. These expectations can be valid for many projects in the social realm, but it undermines a complex, nuanced and often timeconsuming approach being pioneered by many contemporary practitioners.

I will suggest how the use of more specialised language can be the solution that allows more accurate recognition, application and sustainability of highly-engaged social practice, to the benefit of both the practitioner and commissioner. To develop this specialised language, I consider it important that the similarities and shared concerns of the broad range of highly-engaged social practitioners are examined. To exemplify these similarities and shared concerns I will examine six intertwined key issues within such practices. The selected issues came out of a seminar I hosted in October 2006 with a carefully selected range of people working within the scale of socially-engaged practice.

My route into this subject is Fine Art and Art Theory, thus my suggested model of discerning between different ways of practicing in the social realm is based on the distinctions made within this discipline. Three key terms - Public Art, Community Art and New Genre Public Art - present a comprehensive scale of social engagement in Fine Art practice. I will break down these terms, which I find to present a useful model of criteria that are transferable between social practices. This will point towards the value of developing a language shared between highly-engaged social practices.