Imagining Common Grounds. New World(s) In the Making

Gemma Bird, Katja Freistein, Hande Paker, Christine Unrau

There seems to be a growing consensus that current forms of an (unequally) globalized world order lead to social misery (for many) and ecological disaster (for all). One typical response to these impending and already tangible interrelated crises is inertia – a common reaction, also among many academics. At the same time, the growing pressures of social polarization, climate change, the deaths of countless people trying to reach European shores, among other societal challenges are motivating many people including academics to support oppositional policies, even in repressive regimes. These practices of scholar-activism are premised on the belief that alternatives are possible and that we -as citizens- need to strive to realize them. Furthermore, we can learn from each other about practices that facilitate envisioning viable alternatives. In the following pages, we thus ask which alternative world orders are being envisioned and on what common grounds. In this issue, authors focus on two capacities and practices which have been identified as being central for the conception of common grounds, or something we all have in common: imagination and prefiguration. Common grounds can be created, re-invented and even practiced through projects that unite people around common goals and shared aspirations. These practices cut across experiences, cultures and approaches and can form the foundations for inventive and potentially new ways of thinking about politics both as movements and as structures.

Common grounds need not be created through institutionalization, legalization or dominance, but can also emerge from cross-fertilization and cooperation between diverse actors. Natural affinities can exist between members of different classes, religions, or gender ascriptions, politics or shared biographical experiences, and these can be built upon to find common goals. Grounds for commonality can be cultivated in processes of world-making, which often revolve around solving problems by suggesting new or alternative means (such as technological or political solutions to climate change or societal overaging) or by proposing new ways of global cooperation that go beyond established forums. If nations can be understood as ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson 1983), this may also apply to different, transnational and global communities. Particularly for new solidarity coalitions to arise, imaginaries of common grounds can be a starting point. Within these conversations and community building actions, however, we also need to address questions of power and the ways in which inequalities can interweave within and across movements. Globalization, as both an infrastructural condition and a growing awareness of a global social whole, including the interdependent challenges presented by pandemics, global warming or planetary boundaries, serves as a precondition for these social processes and further underlines the importance of reflexivity and the search for common grounds. At the same time, it reinforces existing inequalities which then cross-cut commonalities and lead us to ask what can be realistic or possible.

The conference on Common Grounds was convened at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research in July 2023 to reflect on the following related questions and themes: What preconditions are necessary for imagining common grounds? What kinds of communities have emerged that transcend established notions of class, status groups or ethnicity? How can globalization(s) benefit such emerging communities? How can structural inequalities be made explicit and addressed in building common grounds? Can solidarity emerge without any reference to (imagined) commonality? What fantasies, imaginaries, technologies can drive change? How can concepts like community, commonality and solidarity be reclaimed from institutions that may otherwise have misappropriated them?

This special issue of the Quarterly Magazine builds on the discussions of the conference around underlying concepts, narratives or worldviews that create grounds for building coalitions. As such, the conference participants also focused on how ideas of change can be put into practice and by whom. This concerns historical precedents and current debates that may result in movements of solidarity, particularly attempts at prefiguring alternative (more sustainable, just, democratic, participatory) orders on a small scale, e.g. in cities or community projects. Focusing on three rather broad fields, namely sustainability, migration and social inequalities, contributors to this issue respond to some of the following questions, all of which stem from different disciplinary backgrounds: What types of projects have fostered new coalitions and solutions in these different policy fields, including migration, sustainability and social equality, that have fostered new coalitions and solutions? How are established imaginaries that relate to belonging, participation, inclusion, care, democracy, growth and nature re-made? What alternative imaginaries exist and how are they practiced? Amongst which groups are these re-imaginings taking place? What roles do the arts – fiction, documentary films, other public facing interventions– play in prefiguring alternative world orders and making them appealing?

In all the conversations in the conference that brought different people, issues and priorities together, intersectionality played a prominent role as a potentially useful lens through which to build the common grounds concerning migration, climate and social inequalities. One important question both at the conference, and also for how we continue to think about these issues is how intersectionality is practiced at the nexus of cultural and political change. The role of arts and culture is particularly important in this regard since arts and cultural actors adopt new practices with an intersectional approach such as use of performances, narratives, visuals, participation, storytelling, and horizontal networking. At the same time, the construction of common grounds is shaped by contestations and power relations. What are the challenges in building commonalities and talking across divides? What are the risks associated with appropriating approaches from outside of academia into neo-liberal institutions and what effect can this have when it comes to building communities including in academia, how can we reconcile bold imagination of different worlds with the need for defensive politics, in other words, how can we defend the – however incomplete – emancipatory gains against extractivist, racist and discriminatory backsliding?

Stories fromthe Conference

One of the important goals of the conference and the ensuing issue of the Quarterly Magazine is to foster a genuine dialogue on common grounds between participants from different geographical and disciplinary backgrounds. Since the ideas of imagination and prefiguration are key and the issue areas were selected to represent the intersectionality of contemporary crises, the conference was planned very eclectically. Scholars and artists from diverse disciplinary backgrounds working with a wide range of issues and questions were asked to engage with the main themes outlined above pertaining to the common grounds as well as with one another’s work.

The special issue reflects this rich and varied engagement. In their dialogue piece, Claire Pierson and Mariana Prandini Assis offer interesting insights into how alternative communities and practices emerge in relation to the specific issue of abortion rights. They emphasize how caregivers or ‘acompanhantes’ have built alternative models of care characterized by (political) values such as holistic care, social justice, horizontal power, and deep listening. These new practices create encompassing infrastructures of care’ which then facilitate common grounds among people with diverse social and political affiliations. Shaj Mohan responds to the main themes of the conference from a philosophical standpoint with a contribution on the question of ‘what comes next’. According to Mohan, this question is intimately related to prefiguring alternative world orders, and it requires considering the domain of authority and power. Pierson and Assis also underline the importance of power relations by analysing reproductive politics through governmentality. The contribution by Renske Vos draws directly on a session she chaired at the conference in which participants were asked to engage with spaces in the city of Duisburg through creative and embodied methods of walking and drawing together. Such approaches also push us to think creatively about the role of power in research methods and what our own embodied experiences tell us about the spaces in which community can be formed and built. Filipe Campello engages with decolonial critique in his contribution, asking who defines which grounds are or are not thought of as common. His contribution reminds us that when we study scholars of philosophy and political theory such as Kant and Hegel, we must recognise that when they looked beyond Europe in their works, they were not interested in knowing what people there actually thought. Therefore, any claim to universality in their writings must be scrutinized and challenged with this in mind. Bianca Sola Claudio questions the possibility of decolonial care in her intervention. She makes the case for the role of ‘effective listening’ in bridging the gap between institution, care giver and care receiver. Like all the pieces in this issue, she explores the role of power and how it can be thought about critically when we think of common grounds.

Underpinning all of these interventions then, alongside the many others we were so grateful to listen to and learn with at the conference, which was itself is a recognition of the importance of pointing to the role power plays in shaping our life worlds and how thinking critically might enable us to come together to build the foundations for common grounds.


Anderson, Benedict.(1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso: London.